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Phil Woods Plays 'Bird with Strings'

Concert review: Jazz great joins the Chicago Sinfonietta in a tribute to Charlie Parker

by Mark D. Johnson
November 21, 2000

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Phil Woods Plays 'Bird with Strings'_Mark D. Johnson-Concert review: Jazz great joins the Chicago Sinfonietta in a tribute to Charlie Parker Who: Phil Woods, alto saxophone, and the Chicago Sinfonietta
When: Sunday, November 19. 2000
Where: Dominican University, River Forest, IL

Phil Woods is perhaps technically the greatest sax player on Earth, and there is no question that he owes a great deal of his artistry to the legendary altoist Charlie Parker, as does every jazz musician. In the late 1940's, Parker, or "Bird," as he was called, led the bebop revolution in jazz, bringing unprecedented ideas and soloing technique to small-group jazz at a time when big bands were dominant. Bebop, with its up-tempo tunes, difficult syncopated melodies, and blistering solos, was not readily accepted by the masses in those days, yet even today it remains the bedrock of mainstream jazz. However, beginning in 1947, in a departure from his usual quintet setting, Bird recorded two albums with a string orchestra, playing well-known standards and their recognizable melodies along with his trademark fiery solos. It was a novel concept at the time - a surprising mix of bebop soloing and lush, romantic orchestration - and many imitations soon followed. These recordings hold a special place in the jazz canon, and yet it is rare to hear these arrangements performed live as they were this week by Woods and the Chicago Sinfonietta.

Aside from the challenging logistics involved in presenting a concert of strings and a jazz soloist, the project is also seldom tackled because of the sheer difficulty of pulling it off musically. Performing jazz solos with string accompaniment is a daunting task, demanding a delicate artistic balance between the improvised solo phrasing and the written orchestral arrangements. In less capable hands, the result can be a cacophonous mess of busy notes and competing sounds. But for Phil Woods, like Charlie Parker, it is a walk in the park, and the result on Sunday, was a wonderful tribute to Bird.

The program featured classical works as well, including Mendelssohn's great Symphony No. 4, but unfortunately, that left relatively little time for Phil and Bird. Only five of the pieces were performed: "April in Paris," "I'll Remember April," "If I Should Lose You," "Everything Happens to Me," and "Just Friends," each running just a few minutes long. The arrangements themselves, by Joe Lipman, sound dated now when compared to the more sophisticated orchestration we're used to hearing these days. Lipman's style is reminiscent of many Hollywood scores from that era, filled with corny flourishes and trills. It's not hard to get past that, however, when such a brilliant soloist rises above it.

As one would expect, Woods evoked Parker's playing in his solos, while still placing his own stamp on these classics. Woods' own inventiveness and original phrasing was clearly evident, as it has been throughout his career. Though he was accused of merely imitating Bird as a 'young lion' in the sixties, Phil evolved into a musician of greater depth and diversity as he matured. His unique tone, clear and robust, stands in contrast to Bird's harsher, more reedy sound. One would not mistake Woods' performance on Sunday as that of Parker's, but it was fundamentally and fittingly all Bird at its core.

As a bonus, Woods also performed two bebop favorites with the session's rhythm section, which was also heard in the orchestral pieces: Jeremy Kahn on piano, James Cox on bass, and Phillip Gratteau on drums. First was Parker's "Steeplechase" in a standard arrangement with solos all around. The second was "Star Eyes," one of Parker's favorite tunes, in the arrangement from Phil's great "Birds of a Feather" album. The rhythm section, while perfect for the string arrangements, could not match Phil's virtuosity when it came to solos. In the past, I have generally not fully enjoyed concert hall performances of small group jazz, largely because the bass is often difficult to hear, and this was no exception. Thankfully, Phil has a notorious distaste for amplification and he had no trouble getting his sound out above the rhythm section and orchestra. The concert was to be repeated on Monday night in Chicago's Symphony Center (formerly Orchestra Hall), and one would imagine that the larger hall setting may not be as good a venue for this material. But while small group jazz belongs in an intimate jazz club, the jazz orchestra arrangements were more than welcome in the concert hall. May it not be such a rarity in the future.

Charlie Parker died at the age of 34, and as with other artistic geniuses who die young, one achingly wonders what he would have achieved had he lived longer. I think we catch a glimpse of what could have been when we hear Phil Woods. There is no player better suited to perform this tribute than this heir to the throne - king of the alto sax.

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